Presidential approval is a desirable commodity for US presidents, one that bolsters re-election chances and the prospects of legislative success. An important question, then, is what shapes citizens’ approval of the executive. A large body of literature demonstrates that the president’s handling of issues, particularly the economy, is an important component. A similarly large literature confirms that evaluations of the president, like most political objects, are filtered through partisan lenses. Due to changes in the US political environment in the last few decades, we suspect that the relative importance of these components has changed over time. In particular, we argue that polarization has increased partisan motivated reasoning when it comes to evaluations of the president. We support this empirically by disaggregating approval ratings from Reagan to Obama into in- and out-partisans, finding that approval is increasingly detached from economic assessments. This is true for members opposite the president’s party earlier than it is for in-partisans. While the president has been over-attributed credit and blame for economic conditions, the increasing impact of partisanship on approval at the expense of economic sentiment has generally negative implications when it comes to electoral outcomes and democratic accountability.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
This would not hold if biases are non-constant over time; for example, if the composition of the parties—and therefore the net effect of partisan biases—has changed over time. Certainly there is evidence of shifting demographics among those who identify as Republican or Democrat (Pew Research Center 2018). But we are unaware of any evidence suggesting that levels of political sophistication or partisan ambivalence among Democrats or Republicans has changed over time. Nonetheless, we return to this point in the discussion, particularly with respect to the increasing number of Independents.
The results are substantively unchanged when the full index is used rather than the single component we employ here.
Unfortunately, the Michigan Survey of Consumers does not collect data on partisanship. This leaves us unable to disaggregate consumer sentiment by party. Because of the endogenous nature of political and economic evaluations, it is likely that in- and out-party economic evaluations would look very different from the aggregate, national measure. While we would expect to observe polarization of economic perceptions, we do not believe this would lead to an increased correlation between subjective political and economic evaluations. Rather, we expect this effect to be conditional on objective economic conditions. During extraordinary economic times, partisan economic evaluations resemble each other, with in- and out-party identifiers making similar economic judgments (Parker-Stephen 2013). This should not lead to an increased correlation, however, because partisans will differ in the attribution of responsibility for these economic conditions (Bisgaard 2015). In other words, polarization weakens the likelihood of voters to reward or punish presidents for (perceived) economic conditions.
The events include honeymoon periods for presidents Clinton and Obama, as well as Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the 2001 terrorist attacks and the rally that followed, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We also found similar results using the Koyck (1954) model but given papers such as Box-Steffensmeier and Smith (1996) and Lebo et al. (2000), treating the dependent variables as fractionally integrated is a safer assumption than treating them as stationary AR processes in the Koyck model. We also ran models using objective economic indicators such as unemployment and inflation (see Appendix Tables 3, 4, 5, 6).
Abramowitz, A. (1985). Economic conditions, presidential popularity, and voting behavior in midterm congressional elections. Journal of Politics, 47, 31–43.
Abramowitz, A., & Saunders, K. L. (2008). Is polarization a myth? Journal of Politics, 70, 542–555.
Alesina, A., Londregan, J., & Rosenthal, H. (1993). A model of the political economy of the United States. The American Political Science Review, 87, 12–33.
Althaus, S. L. (2003). Collective preferences in democratic politics: Opinion surveys and the will of the people. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Althaus, S. L., & Kim, Y. M. (2006). Priming effects in complex environments. Journal of Politics, 68, 960–976.
Anderson, C. J. (2000). Economic voting and political context: A comparative perspective. Electoral Studies, 19, 151–170.
Arcelus, F., & Meltzer, A. H. (1975). The effect of aggregate economic variables on congressional elections. American Political Science Review, 69, 1232–1239.
Arceneaux, K., & Johnson, M. (2013). Changing minds or changing channels? Partisan news in an age of choice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Baldassarri, D., & Gelman, A. (2008). Partisans without constraint: Political polarization and trends in American public opinion. American Journal of Sociology, 114, 408–446.
Bartels, L. M. (2000). Partisanship and voting behavior, 1952–1996. American Journal of Political Science. https://doi.org/10.2307/2669291.
Bartels, L. (2002). Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior, 24, 117–150.
Baum, M., & Kernell, S. (2001). Economic class and popular support for Franklin Roosevelt in war and peace. Public Opinion Quarterly, 65, 198–229.
Bisgaard, M. (2015). Bias will find a way: Economic perceptions, attributions of blame, and partisan-motivated reasoning during crisis. The Journal of Politics, 77, 849–860.
Bond, J. R., Fleisher, R., & Dan Wood, B. (2003). The marginal and time-varying effect of public approval on presidential success in congress. Journal of Politics, 65, 92–110.
Box-Steffensmeier, J. M., DeBoef, S., & Lin, T.-M. (2004). The dynamics of the partisan gender gap. American Political Science Review, 98, 515–528.
Box-Steffensmeier, J. M., & Smith, R. M. (1996). The dynamics of aggregate partisanship. American Political Science Review, 90(3), 567–580.
Box-Steffensmeier, J. M., & Tomlinson, A. R. (2000). Fractional integration methods in political science. Electoral Studies, 19, 63–76.
Brody, R. A. (1991). Assessing the President: The media, elite opinion, and public support. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bullock, J. G., Gerber, A. S., Hill, S. J., & Huber, G. A. (2015). Partisan bias in factual beliefs about politics. Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 10, 519–578.
Campbell, J. E. (2016). The trial-heat and seats-in-trouble forecasts of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. Political Science and Politics, 49, 664–668.
Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. New York: Wiley.
Carey, S., & Lebo, M. J. (2006). Election cycles and the economic voter. Political Research Quarterly, 59, 543–556.
Clarke, H. D., & Stewart, M. C. (1994). Prospections, retrospections and rationality: The ‘bankers’ model of presidential approval reconsidered. American Journal of Political Science, 38, 1104–1123.
Clarke, H. D., & Stewart, M. C. (1995). Economic evaluations, prime ministerial approval and governing party support: Rival models reconsidered. British Journal of Political Science, 25, 145–170.
Clarke, H. D., Stewart, M. C., Ault, M., & Elliott, E. (2005). Men, women and the dynamics of presidential approval. British Journal of Political Science, 35, 31–51.
Cohen, J. E. (2002). The polls: Policy-specific presidential approval, part 2. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 32, 779–788.
Cohen, J. E. (2004). Economic perceptions and executive approval in comparative perspective. Political Behavior, 26, 27–43.
Conover, P. J., Feldman, S., & Knight, K. (1986). Judging inflation and unemployment: The origins of retrospective evaluations. Journal of Politics, 48, 565–588.
Conover, P. J., Feldman, S., & Knight, K. (1987). The personal and political underpinnings of economic forecasts. American Journal of Political Science, 31, 559–583.
De Boef, S., & Kellstedt, P. M. (2004). The political (and economic) origins of consumer confidence. American Journal of Political Science, 48, 633–649.
Dickerson, B., & Ondercin, H. (2017). Conditional motivated reasoning: How the local economy moderates partisan motivations in economic perceptions. Political Research Quarterly, 70, 194–208.
Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.
Druckman, J. N. (2012). The politics of motivation. Critical Review, 24, 199–216.
Druckman, J. N. (2014). Pathologies of studying public opinion, political communication, and democratic responsiveness. Political Communication, 31, 467–492.
Druckman, J. N., Peterson, E., & Slothuus, R. (2013). How elite partisan polarization affects public opinion formation. American Political Science Review, 107, 57–79.
Duch, R. M., Palmer, H. D., & Anderson, C. J. (2000). Heterogeneity in perceptions of national economic conditions. American Journal of Political Science, 44, 635–652.
Durr, R. H., Gilmour, J. B., & Wolbrecht, C. (1997). Explaining congressional approval. American Journal of Political Science, 41, 175–207.
Eichenberg, R. C., Stoll, R. J., & Lebo, M. J. (2006). War president: The approval ratings of George W. Bush. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50, 783–808.
Enns, P. K., & Anderson, C. J. (2009). The American voter goes shopping: Micro-foundations of the partisan economy. In Paper prepared for delivery at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.
Enns, P. K., & McAvoy, G. E. (2012). The role of partisanship in aggregate opinion. Political Behavior, 34, 1–25.
Erikson, R. S., MacKuen, M. B., & Stimson, J. A. (2000). Bankers or peasants revisited: Economic expectations and presidential approval. Electoral Studies, 19, 295–312.
Erikson, R. S., MacKuen, M. B., & Stimson, J. A. (2002). The macro polity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Evans, G., & Pickup, M. (2010). Reversing the causal arrow: The political conditioning of economic perceptions in the 2000–2004 U.S. presidential election cycle. The Journal of Politics, 72, 1236–1251.
Feaver, P. D., & Gelpi, C. (2004). Choosing Your Battles. In American civil–military relations and the use of force. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fiorina, M. P. (1978). Economic retrospective voting in American national elections: A micro-analysis. American Journal of Political Science, 22, 426–443.
Fiorina, M. P. (1981). Retrospective voting in American national elections. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Fiorina, M. P., & Abrams, S. A. (2009). Disconnect: The breakdown of representation in American politics. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Gelpi, C., Reifler, J., & Feaver, P. (2007). Iraq the vote: Retrospective and prospective foreign policy judgments on candidate choice and casualty tolerance. Political Behavior, 29, 151–174.
Gerber, A. S., & Huber, G. A. (2009). Partisanship and economic behavior: Do partisan differences in economic forecasts predict real economic behavior? American Political Science Review, 103, 407–426.
Gerber, A. S., & Huber, G. A. (2010). Partisanship, political control, and economic assessments. American Journal of Political Science, 54, 153–173.
Goodhart, C. A. E., & Bhansali, R. J. (1970). Political economy. Political Studies, 18, 43–106.
Hetherington, M. J. (2001). Resurgent mass partisanship: The role of elite polarization. American Political Science Review, 95, 619–632.
Hetherington, M. J., & Rudolph, T. J. (2015). Why Washington won’t work: Polarization, political trust, and the governing crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hibbs, D. A. (1979). The mass public and macroeconomic performance: The dynamics of public opinion toward unemployment and inflation. American Journal of Political Science, 23, 705–731.
Hollander, B. A. (2008). Tuning out or tuning elsewhere? Partisanship, polarization, and media migration from 1998 to 2006. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 85, 23–40.
Hurwitz, J., & Peffley, M. (1987). How are foreign policy attitudes structured? A hierarchical model. The American Political Science Review, 81, 1099–1120.
Iyengar, S., & Hahn, K. S. (2009). Red media, blue media: Evidence of ideological selectivity in media use. Journal of Communication, 59, 19–39.
Iyengar, S., Lelkes, Y., Levendusky, M., Malhotra, N., & Westwood, S. J. (2019). The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051117-073034.
Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2015). Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence on group polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59, 690–707.
Jerit, J., & Barabas, J. (2012). Partisan perceptual bias and the information environment. The Journal of Politics, 74, 672–684.
Kagay, M. R. (1999). Presidential address: Public opinion and polling during presidential scandal and impeachment. Public Opinion Quarterly, 63, 449–463.
Kellstedt, P. M., Linn, S., & Lee Hannah, A. (2015). The usefulness of consumer sentiment: Assessing construct and measurement. Public Opinion Quarterly, 79, 181–203.
Kernell, S. (1978). Explaining presidential popularity. American Political Science Review, 72, 506–522.
Key, E. M., & Donovan, K. M. (2017). The political economy: Political determinants of the macroeconomy. Political Behavior, 39, 763–786.
Kim, S., Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2012). A computational model of the citizen as motivated reasoned: Modeling the dynamics of the 2000 presidential election. Political Behavior, 31, 1–28.
Kinder, D. R., & Roderick Kiewiet, D. (1981). Sociotropic politics: The American case. British Journal of Political Science, 11, 129–162.
Koyck, L. M. (1954). Distributed lags and investment analysis (4th ed.). Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Kramer, G. H. (1971). Short-term fluctuations in U.S. voting behavior, 1896–1964. The American Political Science Review, 65, 131–143.
Kramer, G. H. (1983). The ecological fallacy revisited: Aggregate versus individual level findings on economics and elections and sociotropic voting. American Political Science Review, 77, 92–111.
Kriner, D. (2006). Examining variance in presidential approval: The case of FDR in World War II. Public Opinion Quarterly, 70, 23–47.
Kruase, G. A., & Granato, J. (1998). Fooling some of the public some of the time? A test for weak rationality with heterogenous information levels. Public Opinion Quarterly, 62, 135–151.
Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). The psychology of being ‘right’: The problem of accuracy in social perception and cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 395–409.
Kuklinski, J., & West, D. (1981). Economic expectations and voting behavior in United States House and Senate elections. American Political Science Review, 75, 436–447.
Lanoue, D. J. (1994). Retrospective and prospective voting in presidential-year elections. Political Research Quarterly, 47, 193–205.
Lavine, H. G., Johnston, C. D., & Steenbergen, M. R. (2012). The ambivalent partisan: How critical loyalty promotes democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Layman, G. C., & Carsey, T. M. (2002). Party polarization and ‘conflict extension’ in the American electorate. American Journal of Political Science, 46, 786–802.
Lebo, M. J., & Box-Steffensmeier, J. M. (2008). Dynamic conditional correlations in political science. American Journal of Political Science, 52, 688–704.
Lebo, M. J., & Cassino, D. (2007). The aggregated consequences of motivated reasoning and the dynamics of partisan presidential approval. Political Psychology, 28, 719–746.
Lebo, M. J., & Grant, T. (2016). Equation balance and dynamic political modeling. Political Analysis, 24(1), 69–82.
Lebo, M. J., Walker, R. W., & Clarke, H. D. (2000). You must remember this: Dealing with long memory in political analyses. Electoral Studies, 19(1), 31–48.
Leeper, T. J., & Slothuus, R. (2014). Political parties, motivated reasoning, and public opinion formation. Political Psychology, 35, 129–156.
Levendusky, M. S. (2009). The microfoundations of mass polarization. Political Analysis, 17, 162–176.
Lewis-Beck, M. S., & Stegmaier, M. (2007). Economic models of voting. In The Oxford handbook of political behavior. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199270125.003.0027.
Lockerbie, B. (1991). Prospective economic voting in U.S. House elections, 1956–88. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 16, 239–261.
Lodge, M., & Taber, C. S. (2005). The automaticity of affect for political leaders, groups, and issues: An experimental test of the hot cognition hypothesis. Political Psychology, 26, 455–482.
MacKuen, M. B. (1983). Political drama, economic conditions, and the dynamics of presidential popularity. American Journal of Political Science, 27, 165–192.
MacKuen, M. B., Erikson, R. S., & Stimson, J. A. (1992). Peasants or bankers: The American electorate and the U.S. economy. American Political Science Review, 86, 597–611.
MacKuen, M. B., Erikson, R. S., & Stimson, J. A. (1996). Comment. Journal of Politics, 58, 793–801.
Mason, L. (2015). ‘I disrespectfully agree’: The differential effects of partisan sorting on social and issue polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59, 128–145.
Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mueller, J. (1970). Presidential popularity from Truman to Johnson. American Political Science Review, 65, 18–34.
Mueller, J. (1973). War, presidents and public opinion. New York: Wiley.
Nannestad, P., & Paldam, M. (2000). Into Pandora’s Box of economic evaluations: A study of the Danish macro VP-function, 1986–1997. Electoral Studies, 19, 123–140.
Newman, B. (2002). Bill Clinton’s approval ratings: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Political Research Quarterly, 55, 781–804.
Newman, B., & Forcehimes, A. (2010). ‘Rally round the flag’ events for presidential approval research. Electoral Studies, 29, 144–154.
Nickelsburg, M., & Norpoth, H. (2000). Commander-in-chief or chief economist? The president in the eye of the public. Electoral Studies, 19, 313–332.
Norpoth, H. (1996). Presidents and the prospective voter. Journal of Politics, 58, 776–792.
Ostrom, C. W., Jr., & Simon, D. M. (1985). Promise and performance: A dynamic model of presidential popularity. American Political Science Review, 79, 334–358.
Ostrom, C. W., Jr., & Simon, D. M. (1988). The man in the Teflon suit? The environmental connection, political drama, and popular support in the Reagan presidency. Public Opinion Quarterly, 53, 353–387.
Page, B. I., & Shapiro, R. Y. (1992). The rational public: Fifty years of trends in Americans’ policy preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Parker-Stephen, E. (2013). Tides of disagreement: How reality facilitates (and inhibits) partisan public opinion. Journal of Politics, 75, 1077–1088.
Pew Research Center. (2018). Wide gender gap, growing educational divide in voters’ party identification. http://www.people-press.org/2018/03/20/wide-gender-gap-growing-educational-divide-in-voters-party-identification/.
Pickup, M., & Kellstedt, P. M. (2018). Equation balance in time series analysis: What it is and how to apply it. Working paper.
Prior, M. (2013). Media and political polarization. Annual Review of Political Science, 16, 101–127.
Rogowski, J. C., & Sutherland, J. L. (2016). How ideology fuels affective polarization. Political Behavior, 38(2), 485–508.
Sears, D. O., & Funk, C. L. (1991). The role of self-interest in social and political attitudes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 1–91.
Slothuus, R., & De Vreese, C. H. (2010). Political parties, motivated reasoning, and issue framing effects. The Journal of Politics, 72, 630–645.
Stanig, P. (2013). Political polarization in retrospective economic evaluations during recessions and recoveries. Electoral Studies, 32, 729–745.
Stimson, J. A. (2004). Tides of consent: How public opinion shapes American politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taber, C. S., Cann, D., & Kucsova, S. (2009). The motivated processing of political arguments. Political Behavior, 31, 137–155.
Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50, 755–769.
Welch, S., & Hibbing, J. (1992). Financial conditions, gender, and voting in American National Elections. Journal of Politics, 54, 197–213.
Zaller, J. R. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zaller, J. R. (1998). Monica Lewinsky’s contribution to political science. Politics and Political Science, 31, 182–189.
We would like to thank Amber Boydstun for helpful comments and A.M. for pushing us to find a suitable outlet for this manuscript. The data and replication code can be found at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/MN4PT4.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Donovan, K., Kellstedt, P.M., Key, E.M. et al. Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval. Polit Behav (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09539-8
- Public opinion
- Presidential approval
- Motivated reasoning